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Why Nationals GM doesn’t worry about phantom ‘mystery team’ contenders in Bryce Harper sweepstakes

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Why Nationals GM doesn’t worry about phantom ‘mystery team’ contenders in Bryce Harper sweepstakes

The caveat is coming this time of year. It enters at the end, after the prime suitors are listed, sprinkled in just in case. It’s the season of the “mystery team”.

They are here now, furtive but lurking, in the mix for uber-talents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, unless they are not. Clearing smoke and deciphering truth from misleading tweets is part of the mystery team process. Was something leaked to prompt a panic on the other side? Does a team just kicking the tires qualify as a mystery entrant? Is there ever legitimacy to the mystery team? 

“I don’t give it much credence,” Nationals president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo said.

That’s good for him since the Nationals have supposedly rallied their pursuit of Harper, joining the Phillies, Dodgers and, yes, possibly a mystery team for the 26-year-old’s future services. 

Rizzo was asked about mystery teams back at December’s Winter Meetings. The Nationals seemed a distant participant in the Harper competition then. Rizzo was more busy walking back the comments of managing principal owner Mark Lerner which indicated the Nationals were all but out on Harper. They, at the least, have regained control of the narrative by appearing back in the mix. 

Which leaves the Nationals and other contenders to shoot sideways looks at each other. They have to balance multiple things: First, what’s the internal maximum valuation they carry for the player? Second, who else do they think is involved, and does that change the valuation line? Last, should mystery team media reports be swatted away, modestly absorbed or bought into?

Each stance holds risk. Marking a distinct demarcation can lead to a too-rigid approach when so much is on the line. Being flexible can lead to an overpay. Listening to, and believing in, rumors about mystery teams can create the biggest gaffe: negotiating against yourself. Dismissing them could cost a team a player because its offer was not in line with one they were not aware of.

“We have a value what we would like to give to receive the player and we very rarely vary from those types of things, those values we put on it,” Rizzo said.

There’s that hard valuation line.

Views from a trio of retired general managers run across the spectrum, though each believes, like Rizzo, the internal valuation is key. All were involved in the manic Alex Rodriguez negotiations of 2000. One landed him, the other jumped away, one never had a chance to make that much money work. 

Doug Melvin was in charge of the Texas Rangers’ roster when his overzealous owner, Tom Hicks, agreed to give Rodriguez $252 million. 

“With any free agency, any general manager, you don’t know what other teams are involved,” Melvin told NBC Sports Washington. “That’s what free agency is about. That’s what negotiations are about. Scott [Boras is] a very talented negotiator. At that particular time, you have to decide, do you want to pursue the individual or you don’t want to pursue him. 

“But it’s very hard and very difficult to know what other teams are involved. It’s probably even harder today with all the social media that’s out there. You hear a new rumor every day. You just have to go about your own business. Put what you think the value of the individual is. When it comes to free agency, a lot of times you get caught bidding against yourself. And you sometimes find that out after negotiations.” 

Steve Phillips withdrew the New York Mets from pursuing Rodriguez after receiving what he understood as an exorbitant list of ulterior demands from Boras. 

“When an agent calls a team and says, do you have interest in this player, and somebody says, ‘I do, not at the level where you’re going,’ I think think it would be accurate to say that team has interest in the player,” Phillips told NBC Sports Washington. “Now, they’re probably not a real player in negotiations. But they are interested in the player, therefore [an agent] can say I’ve got 13 teams interested in my guy, then that may at times include somebody like that, which I don’t have a problem with. That’s building a market for your guy. And the way that I look at is, I think the best way I’ve experienced and I didn’t have a lot of success with Scott, making deals, we didn’t make a lot of deals back in the day, I would just say here is where I see the value for the player. If you have something better than that, take it. Don’t chase the ghost. Don’t chase what you think might be the deal out there. Only make the deal.

“The Kevin Brown deal back in the day where he got $105 million from the Dodgers? There are many who believe maybe the Dodgers were chasing the thought that somebody else was negotiating against them, and paid him $15, $20 million more than they probably had to to get the deal done. So when I watched that or heard that, and then my experience was go to where I think the value is, and stop there, and don’t play the game of, what if someone else is willing to go more.“

Pat Gillick knew he couldn’t spend what Rodriguez was after, either in length of contract or average annual valuation. However, he did listen to everything rolled out to the public, putting varied weight on each piece of information.

“When I was a general manager, I listen to all the information that might be out there,” Gillick told NBC Sports Washington. “Some of it might be false... But I think you have to listen to as much information [as possible]. There might be someone who has a tidbit or information that can be pertinent. Consequently, I don’t think you should dismiss anything. I think you should look at everything, then put a value on it. If it’s somewhat credible, then you’ve got to take it into consideration.

“I think before you start a negotiation, you’ve got to in your own mind know your maximum you can pay per year and the length you’re going to go. And once you reach that point, you just can’t go any further. You’re not dealing with one player. You’re dealing with maybe the whole team. You’re dealing with players in the future. If people know that your situation is you’re only going to go a certain amount of years, that kind of gets around the industry. It’s important you be consistent with the players you deal with. I don’t think you can go overboard and give somebody 10 years when really your max might be three or five.”

Melvin, Gillick and Phillips are watching the current process with intrigue. Melvin is a senior special advisor with the Milwaukee Brewers, Gillick is working in a similar capacity for the Philadelphia Phillies and Phillips is one of the lead voices on SiriusXM’s MLB Network Radio channel. None have the interest level of Rizzo. 

So, read the next report with the assumption each general manager involved -- as much as they are in what ultimately becomes an ownership decision -- has a strict valuation. And, if the report includes a mystery team, know Rizzo will being waving that layer off.

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How big of a priority is filling the hole at second base for the Nationals?

How big of a priority is filling the hole at second base for the Nationals?

When the Nationals entered the offseason, they had significant needs at seven different areas of the roster: catcher, first base, second base, third base, rotation, bullpen and bench.

Washington made strides toward solidifying the first two by inking catcher Yan Gomes and first baseman Howie Kendrick to separate deals over the first five weeks of the offseason. But with former stars Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon both still on the board, there are still many different directions the Nationals could go this winter.

On this week’s episode of the Nationals Talk podcast, NBC Sports Washington’s Todd Dybas sat down with Jesse Dougherty of The Washington Post and MLB.com’s Jamal Collier to talk about the team’s offseason plans. With the needs the Nationals have in so many areas, the writers agreed Washington didn’t need to prioritize second base.

“Second base, to me, feels like it would probably be the last thing on my checklist if I’m the Nats,” Collier said. “You’re going to operate on some kind of budget and you have to spend money on re-signing [Stephen] Strasburg, figuring out whatever you’re going to do at third base…and you have to do something with this bullpen as well.”

Right now, the Nationals have top prospect Carter Kieboom as a potential option to take the starting job out of Spring Training. They also have veteran utility players Wilmer Difo and Adrian Sanchez on the roster, but neither has been able to produce consistently on the offensive end.

“I would probably band-aid it with probably a cheaper option than Brian Dozier,” Dougherty said. “Maybe even give Carter the shot but have a veteran behind him…César Hernández makes a ton of sense to me. He’s a switch hitter, he can play multiple positions, you have a hole at utility player.”

Dybas also mentioned Starlin Castro as a potential option. Castro played all 162 games for the Miami Marlins last season, hitting .270 with a career-high 22 home runs. He’ll be 30 years old on Opening Day and was lauded by his former club for his clubhouse presence.

One potential option that came off the board in recent weeks was Mike Moustakas, who inked a four-year, $64 million deal with the Cincinnati Reds. A natural third baseman, Moustakas played 47 games at second for the Milwaukee Brewers last season and is now entrenched there for the Reds moving forward with Eugenio Suarez playing third.

“I hate that Moustakas deal,” Collier said. The Reds are “putting him out of position. He’s not a second baseman. So you’re getting worse defensively for a guy who’s pretty much all power. We don’t know what the shape of the ball is going to be [and] he’s only getting older.”

It was certainly a high price tag, which likely took the Nationals out of the running if second base is an area the team is hoping to save money on. But they also could’ve signed Moustakas to play third, a position that is remarkably light on talent in free agency.

For the full episode, which also includes discussions about Rendon and Strasburg’s prospects of returning to Washington, you can find the Nationals Talk podcast at Art19, Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Howie Kendrick’s 6 best moments of the 2019 season

Howie Kendrick’s 6 best moments of the 2019 season

The Nationals took a significant step in building their roster for the 2020 season Friday when they reportedly re-signed Howie Kendrick to a one-year, $6.25 million deal with a mutual option for 2021.

Kendrick was limited to just 121 games during the regular season but played an important role for the team in the playoffs with some hits that will forever live in Nationals lore.

But Kendrick wasn’t just a clutch hitter in the playoffs. His 1.135 OPS in “late and close” situations—defined by Baseball-Reference as any situation in the seventh inning or later where a hitter’s team is either up by one, tied or the tying run is on deck—ranked second on the team among players with at least 30 such plate appearances last season.

Washington is bringing back the 36-year-old with hopes that he can continue to come through in key moments as his career winds down. But even if he doesn’t, Kendrick has cemented his Nationals legacy.

Here are six of his best moments from the 2019 season.

April 13 – Eaton, Kendrick spoil Archer’s big day

Chris Archer has had an up-and-down tenure with the Pittsburgh Pirates since being acquired in a blockbuster trade midway through the 2018 season. His best start of the year, however, came against the Nationals on April 13.

Archer held Washington one run on four hits over seven innings, handing the game over to the Pirates’ bullpen with a 2-1 lead. Reliever Richard Rodriguez retired the first two batters he faced in the eighth before Adam Eaton came to the plate.

That’s when the pendulum swung, as Eaton left the yard only for Kendrick to do so a few minutes later. Sean Doolittle closed the door in the top of the ninth and the Nationals moved to 7-6 on the year.

May 9 – Kendrick drives in four against the Dodgers

Patrick Corbin may have been the story in this one by blanking the Los Angeles Dodgers over seven strong frames, but it was also one of Kendrick’s best games of the year.

His big hit didn’t come late, however. Kendrick took Rich Hill deep for a three-run homer in the top of the first to set the tone early. He then hit an RBI single with two runners on in the eighth before the Nationals eventually won 6-0.

June 9 – Kendrick hits the first of four straight homers

It was a 1-1 game when Kendrick came to the plate in the top of the eighth against the San Diego Padres on June 9. So naturally he saw a curveball heading for the center of the plate and pulled it into the left field seats for a go-ahead home run.

What followed was absolute madness. Trea Tuner homered. Then Eaton did. Then Anthony Rendon. It was the second time the Nationals went back-to-back-to-back-to-back in team history and more than enough to give Washington the win.

NLDS Game 5 – The greatest moment in Nationals history, for a few weeks

“Do you believe it!?”

That was the radio call Dave Jageler made when Kendrick hit a go-ahead grand slam in the 10th inning. It was the moment that delivered the Nationals’ first postseason series winning, putting to bed a history of disappointment for the franchise.

It was the single-most important hit any Nationals player ever had. That is, until a certain World Series game a few weeks later…

NLCS Game 3 – Kendrick hits three doubles en route to NLCS MVP honors

There was no way a list like this could be put together without a nod toward Kendrick’s NLCS performance. He reached base seven times in the series, driving in four runs and scoring another four of his own. But by far his best game came in Game 3.

The Nationals returned to D.C. with a 2-0 lead over the St. Louis Cardinals and treated their fans to a blowout 8-1 win. Kendrick smacked three doubles, including a two-run, opposite-field gap plugger off Jack Flaherty in the bottom of the third that gave Washington a 4-0 lead.

World Series Game 7 – You know the one

When that ball clanked off the foul pole down the right field line, it changed the lives of D.C. sports fans forever. The magical run had one last bit of magic left, and of course it came courtesy of the man who gave the fan base real hope in the first place.

Kendrick is back for another run in 2020. The Nationals? They’re hoping his magic hasn’t run out just yet.

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